Referendum set to ditch old system: In tomorrow's poll Italians are expected to opt for first-past-the-post elections, writes Patricia Clough in Rome

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ITALIANS LOOK set to deal the coup de grace to their moribund political system in the nationwide referendum on electoral reform on Sunday. The vote, if carried, will be a vital step in the transition from the morally bankrupt First Republic to the beginnings of the Second.

Two public opinion polls showed yesterday they would vote overwhelmingly to scrap their ultra-proportional electoral law in favour of a first-past-the-post majority system. One institute, Directa, put the majority at between 78 and 84 per cent. The second, Doxa, found 57 per cent for and 10 per cent against, with 33 per cent uncertain. If the latter divided up along the lines of the rest, the majority would be around 80 per cent.

What will happen then is far from certain, for uncharted waters lie ahead. The Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, has said he will call on President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro on Tuesday, the day after the results, to review the situation, and will report to the Chamber of Deputies.

Mr Amato, whose government has been artificially kept alive to avoid a distracting crisis during the referendum campaign, has said that it is not likely to last much longer. The President has been sounding out the possibilities of a broader-based coalition to succeed it but with no clear evidence yet of success. He seems reluctant to let Mr Amato go until the parties can agree, and has appealed for a sense of responsibility and warned, 'we cannot leave the slightest power vacuum, or even the impression of a power vacuum'.

Whatever the government, it seems likely that parliament will be obliged to pass new electoral laws based on a majority system - whether on British or French lines will, no doubt, be decided with great difficulty and the President reminded parliament yesterday that it had a duty to obey the will of the voters.

Referendums in Italy can only abrogate existing laws or parts of laws, they cannot institute anything new. And the referendum (one of eight to be held on Sunday and Monday morning) would merely strike out sections of the law on elections to the Senate so as to turn it from an effectively proportional system to one in which three-quarters of the seats would be awarded under the British method and one-quarter according to the parties' percentage of the vote.

Its organisers, however, have been presenting the referendum as a clear vote for or against a majority system for the Chamber of Deputies as well as the Senate. Their leader, Mario Segni, has called for a 60 per cent majority, at least, to make it clear to reluctant parties that this is indeed what the country wants. Otherwise, he fears, they will feel justified in producing a 'shambles' with minimal majority elements severely watered down by proportional 'guarantees'.

This would thwart the dismantling of Italy's disgraced 'partitocracy', obstruct a direct relationship between voters and their representatives and prevent the alternation of parties in government, which together are the object of the exercise.

If the 48 million voters do say 'yes' so clearly, and if 'yes' is what they truly mean, it will be a marvel of national clear-headedness. For over the weeks the arguments have become hopelessly confused, with smaller parties (who risk being swept away under a majority system) maintaining that true reform can only be had by saying 'no', and the established parties, who would seem to have a huge stake in the status quo, officially lining up with the 'yes' campaign.

(Photograph omitted)

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